Jose Manuel Durao Barroso: the Quiet Portugese who is unlikely to upset the status quo

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The Independent Online

Quiet, unassuming, amiable, low-profile: the adjectives applied to Jose Manuel Durao Barroso are not those normally used to describe Europe's most successful politicians.

Yet the 48-year-old Portuguese Prime Minister, who is due to be anointed the next president of the European Commission tomorrow, will arrive in Brussels as almost an unknown quantity. Renowned in Portugal for his economic liberalism and his support for the US-led war on Iraq, the multi-lingual lawyer has made little mark on the EU during his two years as a Prime Minister.

But, despite his Iraq stance, Mr Durao Barroso has somehow managed to offend few of his colleagues. A little more than a year ago he hosted a four-nation pro-war summit in the Azores, designed to show that there was some European support for President George Bush. The Portuguese leader took a back seat, however, allowing the limelight to shine on Mr Bush, Tony Blair and the former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

That discretion appears to have served him well. Iraq was the fault line which divided EU leaders as they rowed over the choice of the new Commission president 10 days ago, when Mr Blair helped block the candidacy of the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstaft. But neither the governments of France nor the new, anti-war administration in Spain, saw enough reason to block the rise of Mr Durao Barroso. After all, despite his support for the US, Portugal's current contribution to Iraq is 120 policemen.

Although he likes to style himself a conviction politician, the Portuguese leader's views have undergone a transformation since the early 1970s, when, as a Maoist student activist, he led a group known as the Communist Party of Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat. He was campaigning against the dictatorship established by Antonio Salazar in the 1940s. When the heirs of Salazar fell, Mr Durao Barroso's politics changes with that of his country.

In 1980 the ambitious young politician joined the Social Democrats, which, despite their name, are on Portugal's centre right. Thereafter his rise through the party ranks was steady. He became minister for development, and then foreign minister, until his party lost power in 1995.

A stint as a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington ended in a return to Portuguese politics and an opportunistic and successful challenge for the leadership of his party. At the time he was widely ridiculed for his statement: "I know I will be prime minister. I just don't know when". But Mr Durao Barroso had the last laugh.

Fortune came his way with the implosion of Antonio Guterres's socialist government. Although the Social Democrats won too few seats in 2002 to gain an overall majority, the party leader forced through a coalition with a right-wing party.

In office he has kept a distance from the media establishment, avoiding most contact with even the most senior journalists. Commentators say many of his views remain opaque; although a committed supporter of European integration, he is also an Atlanticist.

He began unpopular austerity measures to slash the budget deficit and labour reforms designed to shift the balance of industrial law away from workers' rights. The result was a recession, though the Prime Minister now claims that his economic medicine is starting to work, citing improving growth. Unions are not convinced and, together with non-government groups, began lobbying yesterday to try to block the appointment.

That cause, however, seems lost because Mr Durao Barroso fulfills two criteria. The first is that he comes from the centre-right. The second is that the other 24 EU leaders do not think that Mr Durrao Barroso will use his new post to cause them to much trouble.

Although European leaders routinely say they want a stronger, more dynamic European Commission, the appointment of Mr Durao Barroso suggests otherwise.